On translating debates & literature
5 min read

On translating debates & literature

It's not that I don't wish to be persuaded. It's true that on topics where I have some detailed knowledge--whatever a priori values I care about, and how these values manifest in beliefs or opinions on issues--these priors will very much influence my interpretation of what is said on those topics.
On translating debates & literature

It's commonly understood that our presidential & vp debates are not scored like certain debate competitions in high schools or colleges, else candidates would speak rapidly to score as many points as possible.

Instead, candidates rightly realize the multidimensional challenge of communicating persuasively on several topics the audience--mostly on the internet or watching on TV--has suggested or shown they care about. (For me, this is sometimes why candidates raise issues apropos of nothing; they may temporarily be violating the debate's guidelines but seek a net benefit from an out-of-the-blue statement aimed at their constituents or so-called swing voters.)

Even with the pace slowed to a level I could hope to follow, I find myself frequently lost in translation. That's to say, when I try to translate a statement I've just heard, one of several things happens.

If I can't translate it, I give up and aim to listen to the next sentence. That is fraught, because I may have already missed a salient point. If I can partially translate it, I may try to hold the thread, but feel as though the speaker is moving ahead of me. At this juncture, I can hang back, lingering on the beginnings of my translation exercise, or abandon it, and 'try to catch up' with the conversation. In both instances, I may feel lost.

Feeling lost too many times in succession doesn't feel good. What then? Maybe I employ a trick I am embarrassed to admit I use in real life--nodding and mumbling mm-hmm--mainly to show I am listening but sometimes to demonstrate my understanding so as not to lose face or be made to answer to some version of "What? You haven't seen Game of Thrones? Under which rock have you been living?"

Or maybe in these cases, and this can be self-deceptive--when I'm losing the thread of a debate speaker--I might substitute the hard work of translation for a different, easier task. That is, to evaluate the strength of their persuasion.

This is far easier. But is it healthier for me as a citizen making an evaluation not only of candidates but also their records (to me, what you've done matters at least slightly more than what you've said) and policy proposals--a kind of imaginative, speculative exercise in itself--to give up my responsibility to understand who the candidates are, what they've said, what they've done, and what they've shown, in favor of measuring their persuasive ability?

If I don't understand, I've noticed myself defaulting to evaluating the persuasiveness of the statements, claims, stories, anecdotes, arguments, digs, and interjections. Not all of this relates to what was said as a significant portion comes through the language of the physical body: hand gestures, breathing, swallowing, the sturdiness of shoulders, the tilt of the neck, head shaking horizontally, vertically, diagonally?, the shape of the eyes, where they are focused, the brows, the myriad contours of the lips, the use of grimaces and grins and at least half a dozen other common facial expressions.

It's not that I don't wish to be persuaded. It's true that on topics where I have some detailed knowledge--whatever a priori values I care about, and how these values manifest in beliefs or opinions on issues--these priors will very much influence my interpretation of what is said on those topics. But, and, in other words, where I am better suited to understand the language, I might--if I can keep in reserve prior judgment on said topics and remain open to further persuasion--actively listen to new information or gather clues about future intentions or plans.


In literature, I've also become fascinated by translation. Philologists used to know multiple languages and regularly studied books in their original version. Their fluency allowed them to notice conversations happening between books in disparate languages. This skill is dying off as English (and a few other languages) grow more dominant and the quality of translations improves. (In the Netherlands, my dad, in addition to his native Dutch, learned to read and write English, French and German, and to read Latin and Greek prior to graduating high school in the late 60s--all this was practical for job placement in nearby countries, with the possible exception of Latin and Greek.) Review sites like The Complete Review are treasures because great work is being done to read new English fiction translations, sometimes of novels which arguably didn't get read enough for lack of a good translation.

One now popular author whose work has been widely translated--50 languages--is Haruki Murakami, author of 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore and dozens more.

In Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami by David Karashima, the story of the translators, editors, and storytellers who assisted Murakami is told. Without them, Murakami's work may still have quietly sat on the English Learning shelves in Japanese bookstores. (Unlikely, in my view--they probably would at least have reached some notoriety in Japan itself–but hey!, I wanted to try some persuasion by exaggeration.)

In this excerpt from 1Q84 we see one character slow down 'in real time' to better translate his interlocutor's responses, which has the result of improving their communication and revealing something about her.

"What kind of books do you read?" Tengo asked Fuka-Eri when they had gone another ten minutes and were past Mitaka. He raised the question not only out of sheer boredom but because he had been meaning to ask her about her reading habits.
Fuka-Eri glanced at him and faced forward again. "I don't read books," she answered simply.
"At all?"
She gave him a quick nod.
"Are you just not interested in reading books?" he asked.
"It takes time," she said.
"You don't read books because it takes time?" he asked, not quite sure he was understanding her properly.
Fuka-Eri kept facing forward and offered no reply. Her posture seemed to convey the message that she had no intention of negating his suggestion.
Generally speaking, of course, it does take some time to read a book. It's different from watching television, say, or reading manga. The reading of a book is an activity that involves some continuity; it is carried out over a relatively long time frame. But in Fuka-Eri's statement that "it takes time," there seemed to be included a nuance somewhat different from such generalities.

We soon discover not only that Fuka-Eri has dyslexia--her parents read her novels as a child--but also that this affects her ability to write, and that she was assisted on the writing of a story called Air Chrysalis, which Tengo is fond of. We learn this only because her conversation partner Tengo has the attention, patience, and gentle perseverance to draw these clues, memories, and admissions out of her.

Even when we believe we are reading and speaking the same language, there's all the work to be done in translation. May we all spend a few more moments lost in translation in the coming months.

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